What are you doing!? I don't even know you!
It's a bit unusual that I can remember exactly when the first idea for a game popped into my mind, but in this case I can — or rather, for two games. But first things first.
On Thursday, June 7, 2012 I didn't have to go to work early for some reason, but could sleep in. When I slowly woke up without the help of an alarm clock, I had an idea for a game in my head. As my mind became clearer, I realized that a game like that already existed — but at that same moment, a new idea emerged, an idea about a card game in which the players have to fulfill silly tasks with useless items (in a storytelling form). Throughout the day, I pondered on this, and since I usually visit Reinhold Wittig on Friday afternoons to play and chat, I quickly noted a few tasks and items — I think there were about 15 tasks and 45 items — printed them on thin paper, and cut them out.
The next day, I went to Reinhold's place and told him I had brought something that I would like his opinion on, but before it came to that, we chatted about this and that. I wasn't expecting to play the game because it was clearly for three players and up, and at that time, we were usually the only ones at his place. Then the doorbell rang and Reinhold's friend D. showed up – a man in his late seventies, a friendly, but rather serious guy, only slightly interested in games, occasionally playing along, but usually content just watching. Hmm, I thought, maybe this is not a good day to show Reinhold my game. I was slightly disappointed, but the idea was so unrefined that I thought, well, I can give it some more thought until next week and try again. We chatted for a while, and as it got later, Reinhold reminded me I wanted to show him something. I said something like, nah, I don't want to push this on everyone, but he insisted. Then I explained the rules, which took only two or three minutes as the concept was quite simple, and suggested we could try it at the regular Tuesday designer meeting. He wouldn't hear of it, he wanted to try it, and convinced D. to play along. And then the most astonishing thing happened.
More than I had seen him laugh ever before (or since).
Even better, after we finished, we did some brainstorming for additional tasks and items, and he gave many good suggestions. That's when I knew I was really up to something.
I went home thrilled as this had been the best first impression any of my games had left. That night, I wrote to my designer friend Martijn, telling him I made a game in which you have to pick useless items to fulfill weird tasks and the other players had to guess which task you were going for just by seeing these items. I attached a first draft of the rules (just one page long). My excitement knew no bounds...for precisely eleven minutes, when I received his answer: Doesn't this sound a bit like Cat & Chocolate?
Oh no. My idea had been done before, somewhat successfully. My dreams were shattered for a moment, but upon reading more about Cat & Chocolate, I gladly noticed that the games weren't all that similar, despite the similar premise. A few months later, I managed to get hold of a copy and played it, which confirmed my belief that these games are different enough. To make sure not to get too close, I decided to stay away from any voting mechanism, although it was occasionally suggested by playtesters.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to play my prototype quite a lot in the next few weeks, with different player counts and different audiences. Everyone loved it, and the list of tasks and items grew. For the fifth play, I added a small mechanism to keep everyone more engaged during all parts of the game: a risk element (the option to interrupt the player choosing items to make an early bet). That was the last major change to the game for some years.
After that, I focused on refining the cards. It turned out that players tended to use quite different items in the same way — anything that was long and stick-shaped was used as a long stick, for example, no matter whether it was a broom or a fishing rod — so I had to make sure that I had a good selection of different items and tasks. I almost didn't have time for this at all because Reinhold had already told a publisher about the game, and that publisher wanted to see a prototype. I rushed one out to them, then the unromantic part about being a game designer started: Sending out a prototype, waiting for an answer, rinse and repeat. I got very nice responses from various publishers, but none were biting.
In the meantime, I played the game many more times and got plenty of suggestions from playtesters, but in the end, the core of the game remained the same. One frequent remark was that it was a pity there was no mechanism to reward the best stories with extra points. However, I noticed that the people who cared about good stories most weren't all that interested in the points, while the point lovers were fine with any kind of story (plus, I wanted to avoid a voting system, see above). Both groups can play together perfectly well, so I only added a variant and left the standard game intact.
I got about five rejections from publishers, and one initially positive reply about which I was very happy. Alas, it wasn't to be. In Nürnberg in 2014, the publisher told me that they had run into some difficulties through no fault of their own, and they wouldn't be able to publish my game in either 2014 or 2015, so they encouraged me to try other publishers first. They also told me about this French publisher in a booth across from theirs, and the game might be just what he was looking for.
So I walked over and met Franz of Le Droit de Perdre, a small French publisher of mostly communication games. He asked me to show him the prototype later (he was expecting someone at that moment), and we agreed on a time. Now I had to find someone to help me pitch the game, because the easiest way of explaining it is to just start playing, and we needed a third person for that. I had someone in mind, but that someone had to leave unexpectedly just before the appointment, so another designer came with me spontaneously. I was so relieved and grateful that I failed to properly inform him that this wouldn't be a playtest session, but a publisher pitch. We started playing the game, and the other designer kept making suggestions for changes instead of just playing along, which wasn't exactly what I needed at that moment...but I got a rather enthusiastic response from Franz anyway. Things seemed to be moving forward fast, and eventually I promised the French language rights to the game to him. Franz was a great person to meet, and we exchanged countless emails and sometimes spent a few hours talking on Skype (and he recently even stopped by my house for dinner and gaming). However, he kept thinking about changes because he essentially wanted a game that could be played right out of the box. I wasn't entirely convinced that this could be done, but he kept coming up with interesting ideas, so we kept the idea alive. He also thought of a cool French name: Débrouille-toi. Can't translate that properly as it's an expression that doesn't have an elegant counterpart in German, and I won't even try in English. Maybe some of those French speakers around here can help out...
Meanwhile, I hadn't made any progress for any languages other than French (which I don't know too well, so I won't be able to play the French edition myself). When the Göttingen Designer Gathering came around in early June 2014, I pitched the game to a few other publishers. This included some notable talks, such as two editors from the same publishing company arguing about the right way to deal with a game like this right in front of me.
And then there was an invitation to talk to K. from Vennerød. This time, I made sure the person joining me knew the situation (and the game) well. I did what I always do during those publisher pitch talks: I explained the basic idea for a minute or so, then set up a sample turn to show the game flow (really the easiest way of showing a game like this). I drew a task, picked some items for it, then the guy I had brought along made a guess and elaborated on what he thought I'd be doing (the essential storytelling part), which was great. Now it was K.'s turn. He mumbled something like, "I think you are trying to do this and that." No story. Silence. Then: "Sorry, but I hate this kind of game."
Here are the thoughts that I processed in the following second-and-a-half: Oh great, this isn't going well at all. Does the only really negative response have to happen at this very moment? Maybe the game sucks and my 100-odd playtesters have just been polite to me?
And then he continued: "You know, I personally like meaty games that take three or four hours to play. I just can't stand party games, but I think the game is good. I will have to discuss this with my partners before making any decisions. Could we meet with them in Essen?"
Fast forward to October, SPIEL 2014. I was able to go there only briefly that year, but at least I could go together with my wife (a rare opportunity). We met K. in a cafeteria that was otherwise mostly empty, but he had brought a couple of other Norwegian fellows to have a look, so we played a round while he was watching. The usual raucous laughter ensued, and the players wanted to do another round. Afterwards he thanked me and said he would need another week to make up his mind — which he did within three days, and it was a yes. I was obviously delighted.
2015 was a less than an ideal year for me. I got severely ill and spent several months in the hospital, and I wasn't always able to think clearly, but we stayed in contact, working out a contract, and began to discuss some details. I learned soon that the game wouldn't make Essen in 2015, and in retrospect I am not unhappy about that because when Essen came around, I was still not strong enough to go (although I was recovering). On the other hand, the thought of holding the finished game in my hands seemed a good enough reason to stay alive.
Prototype box; one editor regretted that no chocolate was inside
The game still lacked a name (for the English/German version). Until then, my prototype had been called "Impossible!?", but from early on, we had agreed on finding something better. Lots of ideas were flying around, but we didn't come up with anything really fitting. In desperation, I remembered what happened when my last game had needed a name, so this time I contacted Kathleen directly. She promised to do a brainstorming session in some of her game design classes in St. Louis. Next thing I knew, I was online watching a Google Doc grow as her students threw ideas at her, which she then speed-typed into the file. There were literally hundreds of suggestions, some quirky, some good, some outright strange. While she was typing, I marked those that I liked especially and tried to explain why, so the students could get a better idea of my thinking. It was a great experience, and I had never done anything this before — the magic of the internet.
Yet when we were done, there were a suggestion from Kathleen herself still sitting at the top of the document, and that was "Mission Impractical". The more I stared at the title, the more it grew on me, and in the end, we settled on it. For those of you who haven't seen Kathleen's GeekLists about her students' designs, do check them out as they are very well worth reading.
I met with K. again in Nürnberg in early 2016, and from this time onward, the project picked up speed. He showed me some works from Gjermund Bohne, the artist he had in mind, and those looked good to me. SPIEL 2016 was set as the publishing date, and I had something to look forward to. K. also gave me some homework: I was to make some suggestions for a cover motif. I am a horrible artist myself, so this is really something I was a bit unsure about, but I regarded it as an interesting challenge and sent in three suggestions.
Another while later, planning with Franz intensified. He suggested making a cooperative game out of Débrouille-toi, which wasn't something I had ever contemplated. Ideas went back and forth, I went back to playtesting and noticed that it was very cool, too — but at this point I finally realized that my original game wouldn't just see two different editions with different artwork, but two different games with the same basic idea. In other words, when I had woken up on that morning almost exactly four years earlier, I hadn't invented one, but two games. Débrouille-toi doesn't have a BGG entry or a publication date yet, but I am very excited about it, too.
The day after I had gotten the suggestion from Franz, Gjermund sent some thumbnails from which to choose a motif. They contained my suggestions but also several more. While number 4 looked great, 2 and 10 captured the spirit of the game best. Hard to decide – but in the end, we went with number 2, partly because of the box format. We discussed some minor tweaks, and in my opinion, Gjermund did an outstanding job — so much so that I tried to copy it. What do you think?
From then on, we worked on the details: component design, rules layout and some changes here and there, box back text, and so on. I felt involved in every step, which was a very pleasant experience. Some designers might be glad to not have to worry about stuff like this, but I was used to not having much of a clue what a publisher was doing to my designs, and I much prefer the more cooperative effort.
Now Mission Impractical is at the printers, and I am keeping all my available fingers crossed that it will make it to Essen in time for the fair.